A dispute over the reform of public broadcasting has plunged Israel’s coalition government into a crisis, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to threaten to dissolve parliament and hold a snap election to block a plan to begin independent television and radio broadcasts.
The crisis highlights Netanyahu’s long-running mistrust of Israel’s mainstream print and broadcast news outlets, which he has accused of being “leftist” and “Bolshevik” and of engaging in a personal witch hunt against him.
Netanyahu helped pass legislation in 2014 to shutter Israel’s inefficient state-run broadcast authority and replace it with a new public broadcasting corporation whose executives wouldn’t be political appointees.
But in recent months, allies from his Likud Party have complained that the new broadcasting corporation is liable to be overly critical of the government. Netanyahu has pushed to have the start of broadcasts delayed and to pass a law to gain more control over public and commercial radio and television.
The new broadcasting corporation was expected to begin operating April 30, but Netanyahu said during the weekend that he had changed his mind.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, has argued that canceling the new corporation would be an unacceptable waste of public money.
The dispute came to a head when Netanyahu — hours before departing for a state visit to China — wrote on Facebook that he had reconsidered and would oppose the start of the new public broadcaster.
He wrote that it was necessary to protect the jobs of the 1,000 employees of the Israel Broadcast Authority, which the new corporation would replace. Meanwhile, his coalition whip warned in a television interview that Netanyahu might seek an early election if Kahlon didn’t back down.
“The Likud, and the prime minister, aren’t interested in elections,” said Ofir Akunis, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s party, in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. “But we aren’t afraid of them if it becomes a necessity.”
Israeli political observers and lawmakers in the parliamentary opposition say the dispute over the broadcaster is being used as an excuse by the prime minister to reshuffle Israel’s political deck at a time when he faces corruption inquiries — Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing — and pressure from Israeli settlement ideologues within his coalition to step up building in the occupied West Bank.
“During elections, there aren’t any investigations — maybe that’s the main reason” for the crisis, said Erel Margalit, a member of the opposition Labor Party, in an Army Radio interview Tuesday. “During elections, there are no indictments.”
Netanyahu has been questioned multiple times by police in recent months about a supply of expensive cigars and champagne provided by Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan. He has also been questioned about recorded discussions of an apparent deal to get favorable coverage in Israel’s biggest paid newspaper.
The Israeli leader believes a snap election will catch potential rivals from the right wing unprepared and is confident that he’ll still be able to vanquish challengers from center-left parties, said Yoaz Hendel, a former communications director for the prime minister.
A poll published by Channel 10 television news last week found that Netanyahu’s Likud Party would win a parliamentary vote if it were held today.
“Netanyahu has decided that he wants to go to elections, otherwise he wouldn’t gamble on the stability of his coalition,” Hendel said. “We all understand the dispute over the broadcast corporation is an excuse…. What you are seeing now is a game of brinkmanship.”
Long before President Trump began describing news outlets as the enemy and their reports as “fake news,” Israel’s prime minister has been butting heads with local media and individual journalists. The Israeli prime minister blamed hostile coverage of his first administration two decades ago for his failed attempt at reelection in 1999.
Netanyahu dissolved his government in 2014 and called a snap election to bury a bill supported by some coalition partners to weaken Israel Hayom, a freebie tabloid that provides sympathetic coverage and is owned by U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. In recent months, he has assailed individual investigative journalists as “extreme leftists” who try to brainwash Israelis.
Netanyahu views the media “as kryptonite, with the ability to neutralize and destabilize all the good work he’s trying to do,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert.
The Israel Broadcast Authority has suffered from shrinking revenue, competition from younger commercial channels, and unwieldy salary agreements that have left little money for quality programming. In a controversial commercial from the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu bragged that his reform of public broadcasting had defeated IBA union members in the same way he had confronted the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
“He’s paranoid, and not completely without reason,” said Oren Persico, a columnist at the Seventh Eye, a website devoted to media criticism. “He has received unflattering and at times unfair coverage. On the other hand, he is trying to control as much of broadcasting media as he possibly can.”
Mitnick is a special correspondent.